Posts tagged ‘Scuba Diving’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery


April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

It’s better down where it’s wetter, under Ko Tao, Thailand

They say that you never forget the first time you breathe under water. Like your first kiss there is a lot of initial trepidation. How does it work? What if I do it wrong and I end up drowning? How am I supposed to exhale? Where should I put my hands? Luckily your instructor is there to reassure you – “Don’t worry, if worst comes to worst you can always just stand up and walk away.” Shaking with anticipation you finally pluck up your nerve, take a deep breath and go for it. The first few seconds are the hardest. Rejecting the very notion that this could be possible, your lungs refuse to co-operate. Your face starts to turn purple and just as you are giving up hope it finally happens, that first desperate gasp. As the air works its way into your mouth you swallow it greedily, holding every last atom in your lungs for as long as you can in case your mouthpiece doesn’t work the next time.

As quickly as it started though, it’s over and you are back to the surface. Dizzy (you stood up too fast), gasping for breath and with a suspicious wet patch on the front of your tshirt (is that my drool or yours?)s, you wonder when you can do it again. You already have a few improvements in mind.

Like hundreds of thousands of backpackers before us, we had come to Ko Tao to learn how to dive in the wake of a vicious week-long hangover from Full Moon. The rules were simple – we would be up early every morning for academic classes followed by one or two dives in the afternoon. We would not be allowed to drink over the duration of the course (drinking increases your chances of developing The Bends and as we all know, fatal illnesses are forever, not just for the holidays), and we would have to listen closely to everything that our hot young Danish instructor/instructress said. In our broken, impoverished, submissive (and in Ash’s case, horny) states that was fine with us. Plus, if we were going to not drink with anyone, there were no better people to do it with than Dan, Ash, Louisa, Paul, Julia and Kat – the British, Maltese and Norwegian delegations we had collected in Ko Pha Ngan. Now if only we could track down a few Eastern European representatives we could have ourselves a proper little Eurovision Song Contest…

Reluctantly, we settled into our five star accomodation, trading the massive spiders and dirty sheets of Pink’s Bungalows for a sparkling pool, fresh towels, airconditioning and beach-side sunset views in Coral Grand. The life of a traveller is so hard sometimes.

So anyway, after hours and hours and hours of book learning, homework, pop quizzes and 90s American instructional videos, we were finally ready for the big event – our last day of diving. Exhausted after a competitive game of mini golf the night before (Gary and Ash stopped just short of clubbing each other over the head on the last hole) we were up at 6am in time to put our gear together, meet our videographer for the day and hop on the boat out to the dive site. Slipping into the water I was a little doubtful that the dive could be as good as the one we had had the day before.

That first encounter with coral and schools of tropical fish had blown my mind. Why, I had thought as I spread my arms and dived weightlessly into a group of clown fish, would the Little Mermaid ever want to leave this place? But I was so wrong – diving could be so, so much better.

The difference on this day was that our nerves were stiller, our skills more honed and our confidence much higher. Today, instead of swimming in a straight line after the lovely Martina, we were setting our own courses – chasing shellfish back into their crevices, backflipping for the cameraman, hovering in Buddha poses and pausing every now and then to watch curious fish as  they swam right up to our goggles and looked us square in the eye. The dive site was more beautiful too. For the first time we realised just how alive coral is with all of its gently waving tentacles and predatory plants. And the marine life! Watching identical Angel fish chasing each other around rocks or thousands of Glass fish changing from one formation into another as bigger fish tried to break their ranks or even the odd Trigger fish as it patrolled its territory, just daring us to come within finger-breaking distance, was the most intoxicating experience. And the best bit? They didn’t even care that we were there, never spared us a second thought (apart from that scary Trigger fish, he could taste blood).

One of the greatest things about scuba diving though – better than the backflips and the Buddha poses – is the silence. There are no tuk tuk drivers chanting, no horns beeping, no cats fighting, no mopeds roaring and no kids screaming. The only sounds are the swish of your fins and the hiss of your breathing. Occasionally, when you get stuck directly above another diver, you can hear a faint popping noise as their bubble stream tickles your face and rushes past your ears. If you are unfortunate enough to be at a busy dive site the odd boat will pass, its horrible roar rumbling in your chest and making you think for that split second before you locate the source of the noise, that the world is ending. But then it passes and the fish continue the important business of swimming in formation and you recommence your backflip competition and the world goes on in its perfect suspended silence.

Under the sea there is no smell of month old rubbish rotting in the sun. There are no raucous bars. There are no drunk westerners veering across roads on mopeds they can’t drive. There is no glow paint. There is no Chang beer.

Of course it’s not all perfect. The duration of your visit is limited by the capacity of your tank, you have to keep popping your ears to prevent your drums from exploding, if you hold your breath during your ascent you can cause lung rupture and then there are always those brief moments of pure, uninhibited panic. Over the course of our morning dive we all took it in turns to freak out. Gary went first having his moment of blind panic during a skills demonstration when he was supposed to drop his regulator (the bit he breathes through) and swim to the surface without it. For me, it was when we hit 18m for the first time and the entire weight of the ocean was pressing on my chest and head. Suddenly, I was painfully aware that I was at the bottom of the sea with no way of getting to the top without my equipment. What if it stopped working? What if I was stuck down here with no air? What would it feel like to not be able to breathe? To feel your lungs filling with water? As I got more and more worked up I started breathing faster and faster and deeper and deeper yet never feeling like I was getting enough air. Just as I started to gasp for breath and consider swimming to the surface as quickly as I could and to hell with The Bends, my favourite yellow Angel fish swam past and I chased after it trying to pet it. Saved by my short attention span.

All too soon our last day of diving was over, we had our Open Water PADI certificates and we were leaving Coral Grand with aspirations of becoming the greatest divers that ever there were. The Indiana Jones’ of the deep sea. The Captain Kirks of the coral. The Supermen of the sub-marine. Tucked under our arms along with our dive logs and PADI manuals however, was a little something that might interest you guys – a video of us, Dan, Ash and Paul making idiots of ourselves in wetsuits. Enjoy!

More pictures from Ko Tao are available in the gallery

March 21, 2010 at 4:34 am 2 comments


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